Real Madrid narrowly avoided embarrassment with a 2-1 win over Al-Jazira in the Club World Cup semifinals, a game in which the contentious VAR system and the referee jostled for the spotlight.
The UAE Pro-League champions took the lead thanks to Romarinho before Cristiano Ronaldo and substitute Gareth Bale struck to spare Zinedine Zidane's blushes against a side whose own coach, Henk ten Cate, had all but ruled out a shock victory before the game. Real were grateful to VAR for cancelling an Al-Jazira goal on the break for a marginal offside decision.
Real enjoyed 77 percent possession and racked up 36 attempts, with 14 on target. Ali "Safe Hands" Khaseif, the Al-Jazira keeper with "Saviour" emblazoned on his gloves, was just that, with eight mostly spectacular stops until he was forced off because of an injury in the second half. Other than that, there was little from which Zidane could draw comfort apart from a pair of disallowed goals.
This was a real let-off for Zidane's side, who cannot have complained too hard had they been sent packing by a club with a budget equal to less than half of Ronaldo's market value. Real's defensive high line was precarious, and had Al-Jazira taken their scarce chances, this would have been the most infamous game in club history since the 2009-10 Copa del Rey Alcorconazo.
Manager rating out of 10
3 -- Was it staggering arrogance or a player-led drive to rack up a historic score? The former would probably sway a jury. Zidane is clearly a keen football historian, and his nod to the 1920s Danubian School 2-5-3 formation provided plenty of entertainment. At 1-0 down after the break against a side who had clinically picked off the OFC and AFC Champions League winners en route to the semifinals, though, it should have been rectified.
Only the flag saved him from going 2-0 down against forwards perfectly capable of outpacing Zidane's backline. In mitigation, two of his substitutes combined for the winner. Suffice to say Zidane will treat Gremio in the final with a little more respect.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Keylor Navas, 6 -- Misjudged a first-half free kick and couldn't do much about Romarinho's goal but might have expected his defence not to afford the Brazilian the shot.
DF Achraf Hakimi, 4 -- Completely out of position for the first goal and missed his tackle on the halfway line when Al-Jazira broke for the disallowed second when he should have stayed on his feet and chased Ali Mabkhout down. Not a performance to give Dani Carvajal a sleepless night.
DF Nacho, 5 -- Failed to cut out the initial ball to Romarinho for Al-Jazira's goal and was given the run-around all evening by Mabkhout and the Brazilian, though he was hardly aided by the side's formation.
DF Raphael Varane, 5 -- Probably should have scored from a position under the crossbar and was at fault for the goal as he stood off Romarinho. Again, he was at a disadvantage due to Zidane's remarkable blueprint but looked short of pace and fitness after injury and was risked only so that Sergio Ramos could avoid a potential Clasico ban.
DF Marcelo, 6 -- Might have lifted the ball into the path of three black shirts on 70 minutes but was one of Real's few attacking sparks. Whether by intuition or design, he was basically excused any pretence of defensive duty.
MF Casemiro, 5 -- Saw a goal that would have been attributed to Al-Jazira disallowed in bizarre circumstances (it was eventually put down to an offside decision), but otherwise, he did what he does best, charged with breaking up play in a ludicrously advanced position and getting in the face of all and sundry.
MF Luka Modric, 7 -- A decent showing during which he forced Khaseif into an excellent fingertip stop with his right and another sprawling save with his left. A glorious ball for Karim Benzema capped a virtuoso performance.
MF Mateo Kovacic, 5 -- Looked good in the first half on his return to the starting lineup, but his error in midfield led to Al-Jazira's annulled goal in the second. Still a little off the pace, but at least he offers an alternative in midfield.
MF Isco, 5 -- A fine cross for Benzema's ruled out goal was the highlight of a subdued game, which showed few flashes of skill but little tangible result against a defensive brick wall.
FW Karim Benzema, 6 -- Sharp but luckless. Benzema missed a sitter from 2 yards, found the net but was denied by a Ronaldo shove in the area and rattled the woodwork twice in two minutes in the second half.
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 6 -- Equalised with a crisp right-footed drive but should have scored at least twice before then. Now the highest scorer in Club World Cup history and half of the Real rescue job, which is a fair evening's work.
MF Marco Asensio, 6 -- On for Isco, he couldn't complete his set of debut goals, despite Ronaldo ceding the final kick of the game, but overall added nicely to Madrid's attacking threat.
MF Lucas Vazquez, 6 -- On for Kovacic, assisted Real's second.
FW Gareth Bale, NR -- On for Benzema, scored with his first touch and drew a sharp save from substitute keeper Khaled Al Senaani with an acrobatic effort. That January signing Real need is already on hand: Bale has featured just twice since Sept. 26.